When I saw Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in all its beautiful, fantastical glory, I fell in love with tales of ancient China and the types of films that I would later find out are part of the wuxia genre. I've seen several of these films now, and my favorite is House of Flying Daggers. So when I heard about Jeannie Lin's book, Butterfly Swords, more than a year ago when she won the Golden Heart, I started a mental countdown to when I could read this debut novel. I recently finished it and really enjoyed the characters and the look into a fascinating time in China's history.
I'm thrilled to have Jeannie here in the Lair today.
Your debut novel, Butterfly Swords, is set in Tang Dynasty China. In a romance fiction market full of historicals set in England, Scotland and the United States, how difficult was it to get this story published?
Of course I have a bit of tunnel vision because it's hard to compare my experience to others--
But I don't really think Butterfly Swords was much harder to sell than a historical debut set in England or Scotland. I think it's all a hard sell right now. For me, I couldn't sell any other story. This was the one I had my heart behind.
Did you write any other books, as yet unpublished, before Butterfly Swords? If so, were they set in China too or some other locale?
I had one other manuscript completed before Butterfly Swords and then one after it. They were all set in the same Tang Dynasty setting. Butterfly Swords is technically Book #2 in a three-book series.
Butterfly Swords won the Golden Heart award in 2009. How did you react and what did you think when it was announced as the winner?
When they were announcing the category, my hubby was holding my hand. Did I expect to win? I don't know. I was really, really hoping and when my name was announced, I kissed my husband and then went on auto-pilot. I had practiced my speech every morning that week in my bathroom and cried every single time. I think I held it together pretty well on stage considering!
Accuracy of setting is so important to making novels three-dimensional and real. You've traveled in Asia -- have you been to the areas you mention in Butterfly Swords?
I haven't. I really want to take a Silk Road tour since they tend to start in Xian (formerly Changan) and go out west to Gansu and the Jade Gate fortress. Instead I spend a lot of time on Google Earth and travel sites.
What was the easiest and hardest parts of writing this book?
Can I say that none of it felt easy? The hardest part of writing the book was not knowing what would work or not. I did so much second guessing and working. I'd overwork something and then have to go back and relax the prose. My gosh, I'm breaking out in hives just remembering. There's so much that you think is important that doesn't turn out to be...and vice versa too.
In Butterfly Swords, your heroine, Ai Li, falls in love with a "barbarian" named Ryam. (I love Ryam, by the way.) You make references to him being from the west but it's never spelled out in black and white. Where is Ryam from? And are there any true stories from history that you came across in your research that inspired this pairing?
Yeah, that's probably the only part of the book that I consider a true "miss". I'm glad you liked him. Ryam is from an imaginary western kingdom near the Franks. I don't even know if the name of the kingdom made the final cut. *grins* The Franks actually traveled quite far East in the 8th century and had a strong presence in the Middle East. Groups of merchants, most notably the Radhanites, actually traveled all the way from Europe through to the Middle East, India, and China. The Chinese recorded visits from Roman emissaries and merchants from the Han Dynasty to the Tang Dynasty, though there's debate as to how far West these visitors actually came from.
Ryam and Ai Li's pairing is entirely fictional. I wanted to put two warriors together from different cultures. However, the pairing in the yet unreleased first manuscript was inspired by the story of Atilla the Hun and the Roman princess Honoria. I wondered what would happen if the situation happened in reverse. What if the barbarians came from the West and the princess who needed help was from the Chinese empire?
As a reader, are there other historical settings you'd like to see represented in the romance market? Are there other historical settings you'd like to use as settings in your own books, or will you stick with China for now?
I can't even say what I'd like to see. I do like the ancient and medieval world. I love reading about Greece and Egypt and Rome. Overall, I like stories that have a global feel. That's one of the reasons I've always loved Marjorie Liu's Dirk and Steel series. It's inspiring to find stories that connect the corners of the world together in unexpected ways.
Ai Li is skilled at using butterfly swords. Have you ever trained with them?
I am not quite as skilled. I've only taken two workshops on butterfly swords. I did take Wing Chun Kung Fu for two years before that, and the butterfly sword techniques are extensions of the hand-to-hand techniques.
I've seen where you've said you're a fan of wuxia films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden DragonHouse of Flying Daggers. I love these types of films as well. They are filled with action and are visually stunning. Can you explain a bit about what wuxia is and what drew you to it?
(FYI, the photo is of Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung in Hero.)
Wuxia is the Asian genre of chivalric literature, analogous to knights' tales in the West. The central concepts involve the xia (hero) code, martial arts traditions, and also a special society or world based around these rules. I grew up watching these movies that came out of Hong Kong, translated into Vietnamese. My parents knew these stories. My grandparents knew these stories. If I could identify one genre that unified all three generations, it was wuxia and Jin Yong.
When the cousins used to run around and play in Grandmother's yard, half the time we pretended we were wuxia heroes. We also pretended we were vampire killers the other half, I kid you not. Yeah, I should have gone with the vampire hunting games instead of the wuxia if I wanted to feed myself off of writing. *grins*
What are some of your favorite wuxia films?
Heaven Sword & Dragon Sabre, Legend of the Condor Heroes, Adventures of Chor Lau Heung. More recently, Hero with Jet Li.
If Butterfly Swords were to be made into a movie, who would you like to see play Ai Li and Ryam?
I did a post on this a little while back. I like Ewan Macgregor for Ryam and Crystal Liu for Ai Li. http://vauxhallvixens.blogspot.com/2010/10/jeannie-lin-guest-blogs-casting-for.html
I really like several Asian actors -- Takeshi Kaneshiro, Andy Lau, Daniel Dae Kim, Will Yun Lee. Do you have favorites?
I do! I'm a big fan of Tony Leung who just gets better and better. Of course Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee. Daniel Dae Kim has such a nice jawline. I think the model on the cover of The Taming of Mei Lin looks like a dead ringer. :)
He is rather nice looking. :) I'm reading The Taming of Mei Lin (on Nov. 2, when I'm preparing this post, which is Ai Li's grandmother's love story with Ai Li's grandfather, back when they were both young.
What's up next for you? Do you have any other release dates? What are you working on?
The sequel for Butterfly Swords, and a linked Undone short story is waiting in the wings. No release dates yet. I'm finishing a short story revolving around the imperial exam student culture in the capital and then after that, I have my kung-fu demon fighting epic to finish.
Do you have questions for our readers?
A lot of what goes into my stories now are the games I used to play. What sort of make-believe did you play when younger? Did any of it translate into what you do now, writing or otherwise?
Jeannie is giving away a copy of Cindy Pon's Silver Phoenix, a wonderful young adult novel that is set in ancient China as well and is filled with adventure, fantasy and love, to someone who makes a comment today.